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Pavilion strengthens bonds between St. Paul, Chinese sister city

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The Xiang Jiang Pavilion at St. Paul's Phalen Regional Park
The Xiang Jiang Pavilion at St. Paul's Phalen Regional Park was officially dedicated with a ribbon-cutting on Saturday. The name Xiang Jiang recognizes a river in St. Paul's sister city of Changsha, China.
John Nguyen | MPR News

The pavilion stands amid the trees, not far from where weeping willows meet the waters of Lake Phalen.

Made from stone and adorned in jade green glazed tiles, the pavilion's overhanging eaves sweep upwards to the sky, above yellow and white rocks sitting in the garden below. A red stele, or slab, with golden Chinese characters affixed to the structure marks its name — the Xiang Jiang Pavilion.

The new addition to St. Paul's Phalen Regional Park was officially dedicated with a ribbon-cutting on Saturday — and it's just the first phase of the Liu Ming Yuan St. Paul-Changsha China Friendship Garden project.

Musicians and other performers gather for the parade
Musicians and other performers gather for the parade leading to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Xiang Jiang Pavilion at St. Paul's Phalen Regional Park on Saturday.
John Nguyen | MPR News

"Every time I come here, I have tears in my eyes because it is so unreal everything would align to have this happen," said Mary Warpeha, a board member of the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society, which has spent a decade working on the project. "Who would ever guess that this has happened the way it has, and so many organizations and people have come together for an idea and a dream."

Those organizations were on hand Saturday for the grand opening, which included a dragon and lion dance parade, music and other performances. It was a part of the annual Dragon Festival, a two-day event in St. Paul honoring Pan-Asian heritage that continues Sunday.

A tale of two (sister) cities

The opening celebration overlaps with the 31st anniversary of the relationship between the sister cities of Changsha, China and St. Paul.

The two cities first began their relationship in 1988, under the leadership of then-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and Changsha Mayor Wang Keying. Since then, delegations have traveled between the cities to promote educational, cultural and business development — something current St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said endures today.

"This is a vision that continues to strengthen the bond between our communities," he said at Saturday's ceremony, where he was joined by dignitaries from Changsha. A delegation from Carter's office will travel to Changsha in October.

The ribbon-cutting for the Xiang Jiang Pavilion
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (center) is joined by dignitaries from Changsha, China, and Linda Mealey-Lohmann, president of the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society, during the ribbon-cutting for the Xiang Jiang Pavilion.
John Nguyen | MPR News

The Xiang Jiang Pavilion — the name recognizes a river that flows through Changsha — is a gift from the Changsha city government to the city of St. Paul, which in turn sent five Peanuts statues to the Chinese city, each with special features like Lucy in Hmong dress and Minnesota icons on Snoopy's doghouse.

The name of the garden represents its surroundings — Liu (willow), Ming (brightness, with a nod also to Minnesota), Yuan (garden).

Musicians play the qeej, a free-reed musical instrument
Musicians play the qeej, a free-reed musical instrument, during the parade leading to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Xiang Jiang Pavilion.
John Nguyen | MPR News

First a dream, then a plan

The Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society initiated the garden project more than a decade ago.

"We all have a passion for the friendship that needs to be between people," said the garden society's Warpeha. "What better place for friendship to develop than in a garden?"

The society originally sought to have the garden in Minneapolis, but was unable to solidify a plan with the city. Later, they found an advocate in the St. Paul Parks and Recreation department.

"You make your own luck," Warpeha said. "And that's what we did."

After considering other locations, garden advocates found a spot in Phalen Regional Park.

The first phase of the project has included not just the pavilion, but also an archway and a Hmong Heritage Wall.

"St. Paul has the largest urban Hmong populations in the U.S.," said Linda Mealey-Lohmann, president of the garden society. "The Hmong trace their heritage back to this area of China, in Changsha."

Mealey-Lohmann said that there are more than two million Hmong living in Changsha today, and the wall connects the Hmong in Minnesota to their ancestral homeland.

"That makes it really unique in these China gardens, probably in the world," she said.

Two lions -- one black, one golden -- are part of the parade
Two lions -- one black, one golden -- are part of the parade leading to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Xiang Jiang Pavilion at St. Paul's Phalen Regional Park on Saturday.
John Nguyen | MPR News

Pavilion built by Chinese artisans

Chinese artists and artisans designed and constructed the pavilion in Changsha; it's a replica of the Aiwan Pavilion in Changsha.

It was taken down, put into shipping containers and sent to St. Paul, then reconstructed on site by a local contractor and Chinese artisans in about two months. Master sculptor and Changsha native Lei Yixin helped facilitate the project.

Lei was on hand for Saturday's ribbon-cutting. It wasn't his first time in Minnesota. He came to St. Paul in 2006 for an international stone carving symposium hosted by Public Art Saint Paul.

Lei carved "Meditation," a sculpture made from limestone from southeastern Minnesota, which now sits a stone's throw away from the front of the pavilion.

"Every time I visit Minnesota, I feel happy and it's a special place for me," Lei said Saturday as his son, Ke Shi, translated for him.

Lei also sculpted "Stone of Hope," the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at his memorial in Washington.

The west entrance archway
The west entrance archway at the Liu Ming Yuan St. Paul-Changsha China Friendship Garden in St. Paul is seen on Saturday. The three characters on the arch, from left to right, are Yuan (garden), Ming (brightness, with a nod also to Minnesota), and Liu (willow).
John Nguyen | MPR News

The next step

The next phase for the garden will be the design of a Hmong Cultural Plaza, starting in 2020. Future additions include an enclosed pavilion to host cultural classes, a Chinese arch bridge and moon gate.

The entire project is expected to cost $7 million and is financed through funds like the Artisan Cultural Legacy Fund and individual donors.

Ultimately, Mealey-Lohmann said she hopes the garden will help promote friendship between cultures.

"These are kind of tense, political times between the two countries, but when you get to the grass-roots people, there's a lot of friendship-building going on and this garden project reflects that," she said.

Correction (July 18, 2019): Mary Warpeha's role with the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society, and some details of the pavilion's construction in China were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.